First Responders Conduct Drill at Pentagon
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 8, 2002 For those who witnessed the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon last year, the sounds of chaos that filled the building's center courtyard this morning may have been a vivid reminder of that tragic day.
Gray smoke billowed from an explosive in a concrete planter and filled the courtyard with a hazy mist. Screams, pleas for help and cries for medics echoed off the building's granite walls, interspersed with the shouted commands of security police and other first responders.
Unlike Sept. 11, the chaos this time was not real. The victims were actors and their wounds were fake. This was an exercise designed to test military and civilian community emergency personnel's response to a chemical attack.
Defense officials had warned the Pentagon's 20,000 workers that Arlington County's Chemical Weapons Full-Scale Exercise was to be held in the courtyard. About 300 people took part in the four-hour exercise that started at 9 a.m. Dubbed Operation Misty Court, the training was sponsored by the Department of Justice Domestic Preparedness Program.
Defense Protective Service and military medical personnel were the first to arrive on the scene after a simulated explosion and release of a chemical agent. They found service members acting as dazed, frightened victims. Arlington County emergency response units arrived in two trucks and began hosing down the victims.
"The initial decontamination is to hose them down, and then once the situation is under control, then they can start medical treatment," said Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Wadsworth of the North Atlantic Regional Medical Command. Co-located with Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the command oversees a 22-state area.
"This whole area is now contaminated," Wadsworth said, indicating the lawn where the victims had been hosed down. "They will not allow anybody who isn't protected into this area, and they're going to have to dig all of this up and dispose of it, because that's now contaminated waste."
The scenario involved an explosion during a ceremony, followed by the dispersal of an agent in the resulting smoke. When medical personnel from the Pentagon's DiLorenzo Clinic arrived on the scene, they found victims with shrapnel wounds. Some were in shock. Others suffered from dizziness, confusion, drooling, muscle aches and other nerve agent symptoms. Orange tags described their conditions to test emergency personnel's responses.
U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Andrew Webber of Schaller, Iowa, volunteered to be a victim. He said he was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
"This is helpful for everyone involved," Webber said. "It gives the civilian authorities a better idea of what's going on. So hopefully, if something like this ever happened either here or anywhere else they could be better prepared."
Army Capt. Andrew Massa, assigned to the Defense Protective Service's Biological-Chemical Joint Operations Cell, was one of the officials evaluating the exercise. He's a reservist called to active duty for 179 days after Sept. 11.
"This is extremely important to improve our interoperability and memorandums of understanding, agreement and mutual support between defense officials and Arlington County," Massa said. Defense Department responders, he continued, need to learn to work with "civilian counterparts, particularly because in many cases they have more mature assets than what we have organically."
Preparing in advance is very important, said Lt. Col. Randy Smith of the Security Division in Marine Corps Headquarters. "There's a lot of different people that would respond to something like this," he said. "Civilian first responders like Arlington County Fire Department and then you have military responders.
"Every installation has a security department, fire department, hazardous material folks," Smith said. "Ensuring that they're all working together and not at cross purposes would alleviate problems."
Exercises help first responders identify any problem areas, Smith noted. "Is it a communications problem, an equipment problem? We look at how best we can work together."
Since Sept. 11, defense officials have installed monitoring equipment and intensified efforts to develop work force training on responding to a chemical or biological threat, according to John Jester, chief of the Defense Protective Service.
One of the main concerns in a chemical or biological incident is that first responders will become victims themselves, he noted.
"It's very important when the first call comes in, you try to obtain as much information as possible so your officers can approach in a very cautious manner," he said. "They have to be careful not to touch someone that may be contaminated. They have been trained to recognize those symptoms of, for example, a chemical incident."
The Defense Department has also worked to improve the notification system within the building, Jester said.
"We had to think about how fast we could communicate to 20,000 people," he said. "So we're enhancing our public address system. We're testing a system now using the computer, because everybody has a computer terminal on his or her desk. A little siren goes off on your computer, a screen pops up and tells you this is an emergency and gives instructions on what to do."
Overall preparedness for a weapons of mass destruction attack, Jester said, "is in very good shape, but we're not where we want to be. We're always looking for ways to improve."